Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Capitalist Dreams for Djibouti

Djibouti is a small republic of only about 900,000 people on the Horn of Africa.  Since the former colonial French Somaliland gained independence in 1977, Djibouti has steadily carved out a regional role through its strategic and commercial relevance at the junction of Africa and the Middle East, and at the confluence of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, overlooking a passage of water used by 30 percent of the world’s shipping transiting from and to the Suez Canal. Djibouti’s location has always been its most precious resource—devoid of a single river or the likes of extractable minerals, it produces almost nothing. Nevertheless, for nearly 150 years it has attracted armies, mercenaries, smugglers, gun-runners and traders: anyone and everyone concerned with the movement or control of merchandise. And that trend only seems set to increase.
Recently-acquired Chinese investment totaling more than 12 billion dollars is funding the building of six new ports, two new airports, a railway, and what is being touted as the biggest and most dynamic free trade zone in Africa. In early 2017, the new Chinese-built 4-billion-dollar railway officially opened linking Djibouti to the Ethiopian interior—the original railway has lain abandoned for years—and which could eventually connect to other Chinese-built railways emerging across the African continent. “About 2 million African customers travel to Dubai each year,” says Dawit Gebre-ab, with the Djibouti Ports and Free Zones Authority overseeing the city’s commercial infrastructure development. 
Ethiopia has a population 100 times larger than Djibouti’s but it only imports and exports six times as much,” says Aboubaker Omar, chairman and CEO of Djibouti Ports and Free Zones Authority. “Imagine the day that demand matches Ethiopia’s population size.”
Djibouti is viewed as offering some of the most prime military real-estate in the world. In 2014, the US military agreed a 10-year extension to its presence—with an option to extend for another 10 years—centered on Camp Lemonnier, its African headquarters. The US pays 60 million dollars a year to lease Camp Lemonnier. US president Barack Obama described the camp as “extraordinarily important not only to our work throughout the Horn of Africa but throughout the region.” A similar perspective happens to be held by China. ever thirsty for crude oil, China wants to shield its heavy dependence on imports from the Middle East that south of Djibouti pass from the Gulf of Aden into the Indian Ocean and then on to the South China Sea. In 2016 China finalized plans for a new naval base in Obock, a small port a couple of hours by ferry from Djibouti City northward across the Gulf of Tadjoura.  Having signed an initial 10-year lease for the base, China will pay 20 million dollars per year in rent. About 10,000 Chinese personal will occupy the base once complete. Other foreign military already stationed in Djibouti—including from France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain and Japan—number around 25,000, according to some estimates.
Djibouti’s current economic upswing—a healthy 6 percent a year which is likely to surpass 7 percent amid the construction boom but locals talk of a country run by a business-savvy dictatorship that has reaped profits from its superpower tenants while not doing enough to relieve widespread poverty.  42 percent of whom live in extreme poverty, while up to 60 percent of the labor force are unemployed, according to current estimates. A 2014 US State Department human-rights report on the country cited the government’s restrictions on free speech and assembly; its use of excessive force, including torture; as well as the harassment and detention of government critics.
The government only cares about how to collect the country’s wealth,” says a Djiboutian journalist previously arrested for reporting domestic issues. “They do not care about freedom of expression, human rights, justice and equal opportunities of people.”
The hugely popular use of khat by locals is manipulated by government officials as a means of repression, critics claim. It’s alleged government affiliates facilitate its sale in the country as a money maker and means of keeping a potentially frustrated populace calm, while handing it when campaign season rolls around to win favor.

No comments: